A colorful guy in a colorless apartment

Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas) lives in a tiny efficiency apartment at Hill House, a three-minute walk from his Cannon office. What it makes up for in location it lacks in the comfort that he has come to know in Texas.

Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas) lives in a tiny efficiency apartment at Hill House, a three-minute walk from his Cannon office. What it makes up for in location it lacks in the comfort that he has come to know in Texas.

On the walk to his apartment, Gonzalez, 61, passes a homeless man leaning against Capitol South’s square pillar. After taking a few steps forward, he goes back, giving the man a few bits of change from his pocket. He imagines his colleagues heckling him over the decision and searches for an appropriate proverb — something about teaching a man how to fish or giving him a fish — before his aide correctly recites it.

Patrick G. Ryan
Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas)

Someone yells from a passing SUV, and Gonzalez quips, “It’s just like home,” before heading through the unassuming doors of Hill House, a popular apartment complex where Capitol Hill lawmakers occupy a little under half of the units. His neighbors are Reps. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.) and Henry Bonilla (R-Texas).

Gonzalez goes into the coin-operated laundry room and leans on the washer. “When you come in here you’re just praying there is one to use,” he says. “This is hard. This is a sacrifice because there are only four.” He laughs, then shuffles over to the dryers. “I think it’s fair to remove clothes that have basically overstayed and evict them,” he says, musing on laundry politics.

Before moving into his efficiency, he lived in the same apartment that his father, the late Rep. Henry Gonzalez, called home for 17 years. Gonzalez Sr. held the 20th District seat for 37 years before his son, Charlie, took over in 1998.

The hallway in Hill House, with busy carpet and fluorescent lights, feels more like a hotel than a place where people live permanently. Gonzalez’s studio apartment has a temporary feel, too.

It looks smaller than his office. The fourth-term lawmaker plants himself in the center of the room and, with arms widespread, says, “It kind of stinks in here.”

There is little that hints at the clean-cut lawmaker in a smart navy suit and citron tie. One thing is clear: Gonzalez doesn’t think of his apartment as a home, more like a repository. “It’s a place where you can sleep and shower and shave. I don’t have much personal stuff here,” he says.

The plant to his right attracts his attention, and he explains that it is corn. There is a cactus to keep it company.

The lawmaker’s queen-size bed is by a window, neatly made and covered in a muted green-and-blue-patterned comforter that Gonzalez repeatedly proclaims he picked out himself. It is more college dorm room than congressional; he could use a woman’s touch.

The gloomy apartment contrasts starkly with the congressman’s light, wisecracking demeanor. At a party for Tony Bennett’s 80th birthday recently he cracked jokes about how difficult women are.

Gonzalez is twice divorced and has one son. His second wife, Becky Whetstone, was so embittered by their breakup that she threatened to run against him in 2004 and publish a tell-all book called The Congresswoman’s Wife. In the end, she did neither.

Beautiful, complex pictures hang on the white walls of his kitchen — a Picasso sketch of a haunted woman, total eclipses and a blurry photograph of Central Park taken by his son. For Gonzalez, pictures are not just works of art but ways to remember people and the past. They are connections to the people who aren’t there — his most treasured possessions.

If there were a fire and he had to save one thing it would be a picture of a bed by a window. It hangs in front of his own bed in Hill House. His speech slows while he studies the black-and-white photo and admires it. It brings back memories of childhood and a vacation a decade ago. “It kind of reminds you of when you were a kid and the window was right next to you. The day starts and everything is new,” he says.

There are no pictures of family or friends — only the borrowed corn plant that someone left for him to care for.

People often crash at his place when they visit Washington. “I’m not using it so, why not?” he says.

A small, gray sculpture of the universe catches the light in the window. Gonzalez likes the way it looks but was attracted to its meaning even more.

“I liked the story behind that because he [Copernicus] was labeled a heretic at the time for not believing that the Earth was the center of the universe. You’ve always had that clash between religion and science,” he says.

Gonzalez, a second-generation Mexican-American, says the issue of immigration is a clash of politics with which he is all too familiar: “In Texas we live immigration every day.” He wants a secure border and a guest-worker program. Constituents “don’t understand why they are trying to criminalize these people,” he says.

He doesn’t shy away from criticizing the Republican Party on the issue: “If they think this legislation is going to do anything, they’re fooling themselves. All of this is about politics. All of this is about election 2006.”

Gonzalez has no reason to worry about his reelection in November. “I don’t have any opposition, so I better win,” he says with a mischievous smile.

But that doesn’t mean the challenge isn’t formidable for his party. “I don’t think that we win things by default,” he says. “I think we still have to offer a viable alternative. People resist change unless they feel like they need it.”

He wanders over to the kitchen and packs down the trash. The place is spotless, and the refrigerator is bare except for wine, bottled water, Diet Coke, a cheese triangle and bottles of ketchup and mustard; he shrugs and admits he has never cooked in here.

The wine bottles are gifts, kept but not drunk. The Diet Coke is chosen to avoid the calories of the real thing. “It’s all about vanity,” he says.

The specialty cheese was a gift. The jelly, ketchup and mustard are left over from a visit by his nephew.

The freezer contains several specialty coffees (gifts again), ice “that’s been there since the Ice Age” and a pint of mango ice cream with an expiration date of March 18, 2005.

He holds it up and jokes, “Oh man, it’s still good. It’s just like college,” adding, “I still have great hopes for it” and shoving it back into the freezer.

The microwave, “the greatest invention,” and the stove, “the best place to hide things,” are shrouded in white. A never-used black blender stands neglected on the countertop. The lawmaker eats out every night, usually either at Pete’s Diner or Bullfeathers just across the street.

He glides his index finger along the top of a small TV and grimaces at the dust. He watches little except for Spurs basketball and CNN. Gonzalez doesn’t watch Fox News, unless he’s in the mood for “a work of fiction.”

Perched on the TV is a clock with three different time zones: Los Angeles, “everyone should go”; Washington, “reality”; and Florence, “it’s magnificent.”

Like many other members, he almost never stays in Washington on weekends. “This is a lonely place,” he says. “Members don’t tell you, but you get lonely here because you don’t have your circle of friends.”

His closet contains only a few shirts and suits. Even his laundry is stuffed neatly in a gray basket. Gonzalez explains that he doesn’t like to keep a messy place.

An old corded phone sits on a modern end table. Only his mother calls him on it. He cannot get rid of it because it reminds him of his father, who had the same number for many years.

If home is where the heart is, then Gonzalez’s heart is in San Antonio. “You have to remember that the sun doesn’t rise and set in D.C.,” he says. “That’s when you lose touch with the people back home.”